Antidemocratic leaders share a propensity for using scapegoats to weaken their opponents and break constraints on their own power.
The forces currently assailing democracy around the world are diverse, ranging from absolute monarchs and communist dictators to populist politicians who gained power through competitive elections. Together, they have brought about a 12th consecutive year of decline for political rights and civil liberties, according to the latest edition of Freedom in the World.
One thing these antidemocratic leaders have in common, however, is their use of convenient scapegoats to distract from governance failures, bolster public support, isolate domestic opponents, and drive a wedge between their own citizens and international advocates of political freedom.
For example, the Russian regime has led the way in stigmatizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people within its own borders and suggesting that anyone who defends them—whether liberal Russian activists or European human rights bodies—is hostile to traditional morality.
Over the past year, rulers in other countries have moved from proposing or passing anti-LGBT legislation that emulates Russian laws to actually arresting, physically abusing, and prosecuting individuals suspected of being gay. Notable crackdowns have been reported in Egypt and Azerbaijan, and extralegal persecution in the Russian republic of Chechnya has forced many LGBT people to seek refuge abroad.
Muslim minorities and immigrants have also made a useful scapegoat in many parts of the world. Right-wing populists in Europe and the United States have…